SEIU Recruits College Students as Muscle

At, the writer known as Liberty Chick offers a good, concise summary of the corporate campaign being waged by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) against the catering company Sodexo, which it has targeted for unionization. As with any corporate campaign, the union is engaged not only in a frontal assault; it is also pursuing other lines of attack through allies, in order to obscure its self-interested economic motive in signing up more dues-paying members.

If you haven’t been following SEIU’s all-out war against Sodexo for the last 18 months, let me give you the crash course.  Sodexo is a food service and facilities management company that provides cafeteria and cleaning services at many of the nation’s companies, schools, event facilities and athletic stadiums.  The company’s 110,000 employees in the US (plus even more in international locations) have long been a been a prime target for SEIU’s organizing attempts.  In the “old days”, colleges and universities hired food and cleaning service workers as direct employees.  But as that need has declined over the years with all the food establishment choices available today, more and more  schools now outsource their food and cleaning services in an effort to leverage those cost savings to avoid making cuts to students’ educational programs. Organized labor has of course pushed back.  SEIU’s been pummeling Sodexo with their corporate campaign tactics through the usual outlets – the smear website, the manufactured “studies” from affiliates and allies,  the strategically times press releases, the coordinated protestssit-ins and international delegations, and all the drummed-up issues

Along with UNITE-HERE (which recently split, with one part it joining SEIU), SEIU has helped pioneer the use of the corporate campaign as a prime organizing tactic. Adapted from a strategy first articulated by the 1960s New Left, corporate campaigns target a specific employer or group of employers through the threat of destroying a company’s reputation. Tactics include feeding allegations of company wrongdoing to the news media, contacting stockholders to deride management and the company’s financial health, filing complaints with regulatory agencies, and plain vanilla picketing.

As George Washington University Professor Jarol Manheim noted in a 2002 Labor Watch article, “For unions, corporate campaigns are a powerful organizing tool because they focus not on prospective union members, but on their employers. The typical campaign does not depend on striking a massive blow against an employer. Rather, the idea is to generate a rising crescendo of psychological pressure to which management is eventually forced to respond.” One way to apply that kind of pressure is to enlist allies, such as environmental and other left-leaning activist groups. In the case of Sodexo, SEIU’s allies include student groups.

Manheim quotes Stern’s predecessor, John Sweeney, who recently stepped down as president of the AFL-CIO. In his 1995 AFL-CIO inaugural address, Sweeney said, “We will use old-fashioned mass demonstrations, as well as sophisticated corporate campaigns, to make workers’ rights the civil rights issue of the 1990s.”

Manheim’s Labor Watch article provides a very good overview of the evolution of the corporate campaign as a union organizing tactic. (Full disclosure: I was editor of Labor Watch when it was published.) And for a more in-depth history and analysis of corporate campaigns, I recommend Manheim’s book, The Death of a Thousand Cuts: Corporate Campaigns and the Attack on the Corporation. The title of the book is illustrative. Manheim also quotes current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who, when he was secretary-treasurer of the federation, candidly stated: “Corporate campaigns swarm the target employer from every angle, great and small, with an eye toward inflicting upon the employer the death of a thousand cuts rather than a single blow.”

For more on SEIU, see here, here, and here.